Read on for a preview of The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley, out now in paperback.
The lohig that tirelessly hauled their hide cart was an odd insectoid creature some seven feet long, its coppery carapace patterned with blue diamonds and stars. At first, he and Kao Chih had been worried that the creature might suffer from their untutored care but the lohig breeder’s instructions had proved invaluable, keeping them from starving or mistreating it. In fact, Kao Chih had taken a liking to the beast, feeding it sprigs of leaves while talking to it in soft Mandarin Chinese, and had even gone to the point of giving it a name, T’ien Kou, which meant Heavenly Dog. Greg was tempted to call the lohig ‘Rover’ but held back.
They had been three days on the trail to Belskirnir, a trapper camp deep in the Forest of Arawn, a vast and dense expanse of greenery that spread north and east of the Kentigerns, covering over a thousand square miles of hinterland. For the last day and a half they had been passing through lush glades and humid dales beneath an endless interwoven canopy, home to the innumerable flying, leaping and crawling creatures of Darien. But now evening was drawing in as they steered the lohig along a dale strewn with mossy boulders, and thoughts of making camp were surfacing.
‘I don’t think we’re that far from Belskirnir,’ Greg said, ‘but we’ll no’ get there before nightfall.’ He pointed to a large tree further ahead, its bole twisted around a big boulder, its lower branches creating a kind of natural shelter. ‘That would be a good place to make camp. What d’ye think?’
Kao Chih peered at it. ‘It certainly appears comfortable, Gregory, but there is still plenty of light – should we not keep moving, to make the good time tomorrow?’
Greg shrugged and was about to reply when, without warning, shots came from off in the dense wood. Automatic fire crackled, splinters flew from the cart, leaves and twigs spun from intervening bushes. Panic-stricken, Greg had dived off the path, scrambling for cover behind a huge, tilted rock, fumbling for his own weapon, the 35-calibre that Rory had doggedly taught him to use. He returned fire, a few unaimed shots before realising that he didn’t know where Kao Chih was, whether he had gone into the bushes on the other side or had fled along the path. Greg was about to call out his name in a stage whisper when there were shouts and the sound of running feet drawing near from left and right.
Fear assailed him as the hunters’ footsteps slowed and an eerie silence fell over the dale. Seconds ticked by with neither sight nor sound of Kao Chih, but Greg did catch a glimpse of one of his pursuers, a burly, bearded woodsman with hard, flinty eyes beneath a battered bush hat. Convinced that the ones he couldn’t see were even closer, he decided it was time to get the hell out of there.
Behind the big, tilted rock, clumps of tangled undergrowth concealed an incline leading up to a ridge beyond which lay a drop which he remembered from their earlier progress along the track. Keeping low, he crept up to the edge and over to see a steep, leafy slope broken by isolated bushes and protruding rocks, leading down to a wide, densely wooded gorge which ran southwards, back the way he and Kao Chih had come two days before. Greg crouched on a jutting rock, unsure of his next move, staring across the leafy treetops, darkening as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Then a shout came from off to the right – one of the ambushers was standing on the ridge about a hundred yards away, calling out to the others as he raised a rifle and took aim.
Fear took over and Greg dived forward, rolling downslope a short distance before regaining his feet and continuing his descent at a striding, plunging run. Just as he passed into the shadows of the tree line, he slipped on a muddy patch. He feet flew out, a jumble of rocks loomed and he flailed madly, luckily catching hold of the stems of a sturdy bush which slowed his plummet. His back and side were soaked with dew and plastered with mud but with his pursuers coming down after him he ignored the mess and headed deeper into the trees.
For the next ten hours or more, Greg dodged and hid, crept and climbed, skulked and lay low. It was a strange, fitful hunt which continued on past evening and into the night. It was never completely dark in a Darien forest – ulby roots, a common species of parasitic tuber, shed a pale yellow-green radiance, while ineka beetles had carapaces that gave off a soft blue glow. Together, their emanations gave the glades of Darien a curiously spectral ambience, a kind of peaceful hush as if the entire forest were holding its breath. Tonight, though, the patchy glows conspired with Greg’s fugitive state of mind to concoct an eerie, slightly foreboding atmosphere.
Dawn was cold and misty, the first moments of sunrise spreading like a watery gleam through the undergrowth. Greg straightened from the hillside notch where he’d been resting and peered out through a veil of blackleaf vine. From the gorge he had gradually worked his way via gullies and footprint-masking streams back round to the route that he and Kao Chih had been following. The notch gave him a view of densely wooded ground sloping down towards the track. South was to his left and a mile or so back that way was where they’d been ambushed. Northwards, the trees thinned a little and the rutted track wound through them to a hillside, curving round it and out of sight. Somewhere among those low forest hills was Belskirnir, where Greg was supposed to meet a go-between sent by Alexandr Vashutkin, the last surviving member of Sundstrom’s cabinet, still holding out in Trond . . .
As the minutes passed the day brightened and a few creaturecalls sounded from the canopy and branches overhead, peeps, whistles and scraping squawks, as if to greet the sky’s telltale pearly glow, sure sign that bright sunlight would soon be burning away the mists. Greg peered into the trees, scanning the distance, studying the undergrowth for movement. It was a couple of hours since he last sighted one of his pursuers, a lean, bearded man with a rifle who emerged from a thicket to the north and stalked along parallel to the track before disappearing off to the south.
Greg nodded, resolved that it was time to go and find Kao Chih.
He climbed out of the notch and crouched in a nearby clump of beadberry bushes for a moment, plotting in his head a route across the wooded slope. Then he crept forward, heading towards the closest tree, and was four paces away when he was grabbed from behind and thrust to the ground. Gasping in fear, he struggled against the weight on his back and fought with one hand through garment layers for the pistol sitting in an inside pocket. Amid all this effort, he almost failed to hear his assailant hoarsely repeating his name.
‘Greg . . . Greg! – it’s me, Alexei . . .!’
Suddenly hearing and recognising the voice, he ceased moving and the weight shifted off his back. Breathing heavily, he half sat up as a grinning Alexei Firmanov sprawled down on the grass next to him. He was a lanky, dark-haired Rus with prominent cheekbones and a narrow chin, and was garbed in a green forest coat over dark grey hunter fatigues.
‘What . . . the hell . . . are you doing here?’ Greg said.
‘They’ve got lookouts posted all along the trail to Belskirnir, my friend,’ Alexei said. ‘They would have had you like that.’
‘I see,’ Greg said, glancing round at the bushy slope. ‘Any idea who they are?’
‘Thugs and nattjegers from the Eastern Towns, we reckoned. Just after you left Taloway, a carrier pinbeak arrived from High Lochiel with word that a local Brolturan lackey was hiring toughs for a journey into the wilds. Later that same day, one of Chel’s high-crag watchers spotted a dirij coming in from the Crystal River boundary quite far off and heading for these hills. Less than half an hour later it was aloft and swinging back towards the coast. Rory and Chel assumed that the worst might happen . . .’
‘And here ye are.’
‘Nikolai is here, too,’ Alexei said. ‘He went after the ones who dragged Kao Chih away. He’s safe, by the way.’
Greg breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thank God.’
‘Or whoever’s in charge, da? Well, there were only two captors – for Nikolai this is no problem. But we have many problems, sitting out there, waiting for us, so we must go the scenic route, yes?’
‘How scenic?’ said Greg. ‘D’ye mean doubling back around they hills?’
‘I mean go over them.’ Alexei grinned. ‘Is not so bad, and quicker too.’
Greg frowned. The hills to the south might be comparatively low but they were steep and craggy. Scaling them would be demanding and risky.
‘Okay then, aye,’ he said. ‘But we’ll have to keep an eye out for any scissortails – a bite from one of those wee buggers and you’ll never play the balalaika again.’
After a stealthy, wary progress back through the forest, following the upward slope, it took well over an hour to climb to the hill’s rocky summit. By then the sun was out and they were sweating as they stopped to rest on a hot stone ledge facing north. Alexei produced a small battered wooden telescope and surveyed the woods they’d left behind. After a few moments he gave a satisfied grunt and turned to look north. Greg sat in the sun’s warmth, thinking about his mother and brothers, now safely ensconced in a mountain camp south of the Eastern Towns. His mother had been angry at being sent away from danger, even though she knew it was a rational move. His brothers, Ian and Ned, were likewise unhappy but resigned – Ian intended to get together a company of former Darien Volunteer Force troopers and Ned knew that his medical skills would be fully occupied.
I still wish you were all with me, he thought, staring out at the dark, dense expanse of the Forest of Arawn. But we know what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket . . .
Alexei handed him the long glass and he raised it to survey the land. The treetop canopy was an unbroken sea of verdant green that swept onwards and away, swathing every dip and rise of the land before fetching up against the Utgard Barricades, two hundred miles of imposing sheer cliffs which were just visible as a dark grey line on the horizon. Beyond, the peaks of an immense mountain range faded away into purple opacity.
Gazing over the forest he suddenly realised that you could lose entire armies beneath its foliage, battalions, regiments, legions, hordes, completely hidden from the eye, their movements a mystery, their tactics clandestine, their strategy covert.
Now all we need is an army.
Alexei pointed to a nearer landmark, a flat-topped hill protruding from the forest a couple of miles to the north, one of a group of hills.
‘There is Osip’s Hat – under it is Belskirnir. Nikolai said to meet him at the top of a waterfall near the eastern slope.’ He looked at Greg. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Well, I’ve no’ had much sleep and nothing to eat but we’re kind of short on choices so . . . aye, let’s go.’
Alexei laughed and gave his shoulder a comradely punch. ‘You will be fine – Rory says you are tough and I believe him.’
‘Must have a word with him when we get back,’ Greg said as he clambered after his companion, heading down the other side of the craggy hill. As they approached the tree line, a flock of fowics came down to investigate, landing heavily on thin upper branches and scrambling along on all fours. Fowics were like flying squirrels back on Earth, except that their forelimb wings were more fully adapted for flying rather than gliding, and their heads, ears and snouts had a distinctly feline appearance. Alexei dug some hard tack out of a waist pouch and held out a few fragments. One of them calmly sauntered down its branch, tiny beady eyes fixed on the prize, snatched it with its teeth then leapt and wriggled up into the leafy shadows.
Greg laughed. ‘If they can get any sustenance out of that stuff, they’re probably evolving faster than we are!’
Not all forest denizens were as harmless. During the two-hour trudge through an increasingly swampy forest, they saw a tree nest of pepper-wasps, around which they detoured, and more than once hurried past yellow sniperviles, bulge-eyed lizards that could spit poison lethal to Humans. By the time they crossed a brook to dry, rising terrain, Greg felt edgy and twitchy and was longing to return to the high valleys of the Kentigerns.
‘This had better be worth it,’ he muttered, following Alexei over a fallen tree. ‘When we walk in there, Vashutkin’s guy better have, I don’t know, a vial of babble dust made especially for Kuros, or plans for that compound they’re building at Port Gagarin, or . . . well, something.’
Alexei was puzzled. ‘You don’t know what this meeting is for?’
‘No idea, just that Vashutkin said it was so vital that I had to be there in person.’
‘Ah! – I know, is a surprise birthday party, perhaps!’
Greg smiled and shook his head. ‘Not for another four months, but nice try.’
At the crest of the slope they suddenly heard a rushing sound above the breeze that rustled through the trees. The ground ahead rose in large rocky steps, mossy stairs for a giant. Overhead, the dense canopy of the Forest of Arawn continued unbroken in all directions as Alexei led the way around a steep bluff, pointing out the rippervine which hung down it from above. Pushing through a tangle of bushes, they emerged near the rocky bank of a stream, several
dozen yards from where it poured over a cliff edge, a waterfall plunging to the forest below. Then two figures stepped out of the vegetation on the other side and minutes later Greg was shaking hands with a grinning Kao Chih while Nikolai Firmanov explained.
‘What a pair of daruki,’ he said. ‘Some of them know their way through woods, but those two must be coastal boys. But Kao Chih? – there is more here than the eye sees.’
‘I was . . . fortunate,’ Kao Chih said. ‘I knock out one with my skull’ – he mimed with a backward jerk of the head – ‘get free, take his gun and knock out the other, then I think I will rescue you and I put on the guns and knives, then I tie up those kwai, then . . . Nikolai arrives and we go spying.’
Nikolai, the older but shorter of the Firmanov brothers, smiled and patted Kao Chih on the shoulder. ‘Steady nerves, this one. All ready to go to war. So I told him that my brother had gone to fetch you and meet later by waterfall but on way here we get close to main gate to Belskirnir, at night.’ He shook his head. ‘Not good, Greg – they are watching gate, around clock. Only other way in is through one of Van Krieger’s private doors.’
Peter Van Krieger’s father was one of the original founders of Belskirnir and the son had maintained and increased that position of authority by buying out the descendants of the other two founders. Rory had told Greg that Van Krieger was now an ageing, piratical figure who relied on lieutenants to run the camp, having no offspring of his own.
‘Will that be a problem?’ Greg said.
Nikolai gave an amused half-shrug. ‘Diehards have had dealings with him in past – should be okay.’
‘Should?’ Greg said.
‘Will be okay,’ said Nikolai. ‘Van Krieger makes a point of being even-handed, and makes sure his men are too.’
Greg remained unconvinced but when they reached the bushy summit of Osip’s Hill after a two-hour forest trek, the welcome they received from the three guards there seemed to bear out Nikolai’s words. All wore similar medleys of camouflage, leather and hessian, and carried ageing breech-loaders sporting this or that modification. The eldest, a bald man with a tattooed scalp, greeted the Firmanovs with sardonic familiarity and after hearing Nikolai’s brief hints at some kind of trouble with bandits out in the forest, he beckoned them all to follow as he opened the door into the hill.
The way led through a maze of passages, split-levels and side tunnels. Greg had never been to Belskirnir before and initially tried to memorise their route, giving up when it became clear that their guide was taking turnings meant to confuse. Stretches of the cold passages were lit by tallow lamps and quite soon Greg began to hear singing. Moments later they emerged onto a hewn ledge overlooking a wide cavern resounding with a barrage of voices and noises from the hundreds of men and women occupying the stools and tables spread across the floor of what was essentially one big tavern. The next thing he noticed was the warm fug of body odour, weed smoke, stale beer and cooked food, at which his stomach rumbled. Then he saw the market stalls around the walls, some of which were grilling or boiling or
frying a variety of frontier dishes.
‘I have to eat,’ he told Alexei. ‘I’m just about ready to munch my own toenails!’
Alexei nodded. ‘Sure, of course – where are we to meet this guy again?’
‘Some place called the Lifeboat.’
‘Ah yes – it’s over there.’
Greg followed his outstretched hand to see a long gallery on the opposite wall crowded with revellers who seemed to be singing several different songs at once. Nikolai nodded and relayed this to their guide, who wished them well and left them to it.
The walls of the cavern had many hollows, some containing little shops or sleep spaces while others had odd, lopsided huts jutting from them. As they drew near to the Lifeboat, those within began singing a new song in fairly ordered unison, and to Greg’s surprise he recognised it as ‘Regin the Blacksmith’. Uncle Theo used to sing it for Greg when he was younger, when his mother and father took him to see Theo in his cottage on New Kelso. Those visits came back to him as one voice led each verse with everyone else bellowing along for the chorus. The song told the tale of Regin, a blacksmith and swordmaker, who helped the hero Siegfried to slay the dragon Fafnir but who then planned to kill Siegfried; the hero discovered this and dealt with the blacksmith in a direct and final manner.
The gallery was busy to the point of standing room only. While the Firmanovs made for the bar, Greg and Kao Chih had held back, with Kao Chih’s face below the eyes covered with a plaid scarf and the brim of his cap dipped over his brow. In the meantime, Greg took in the surrounding press, surreptitiously studying faces and heads, looking for someone who might be Vashutkin’s go-between. ‘Regin the Blacksmith’ was nearly finished, with scores of Dariens, male and female, roaring out the chorus, led by a broad-shouldered, black-haired man in a short-sleeved leather jerkin who banged an empty tankard on the table in time with the beat. Alexei reappeared with two bowls of savoury meat and vegetables which Greg and Kao Chih accepted gratefully and began to devour.
‘So what does this messenger look like?’
Greg shrugged. ‘The message said that the go-between and his bodyguard would be here today and tomorrow between sunup and midnight.’ He paused to chew another mouthful. ‘So we’re . . . looking for at least two people. Dinna have a clue about them otherwise.’
Nikolai frowned a moment, then smiled. ‘I have it – we just wait and see who stays around later then go and say hello.’
‘I think it’s more straightforward than that,’ Greg said, staring past him. The main table had finished singing and the brawny, black-haired man was muttering with a grey-haired woman in hunter’s garb. As they conversed, she glanced across the busy room directly at Greg and the big man looked round too, revealing the face of Vashutkin’s go-between.
It was Vashutkin himself.
‘Is that . . . ?’ Alexei said.
‘Huh. Hardly recognised him without moustache.’
Then Nikolai appeared next to Vashutkin and his companion, exchanged a few words then looked up at Greg and Alexei and indicated the exit. They nodded and made for the door, Greg hurriedly wolfing down the rest of his food, then a moment later Vashutkin came out, smiled tightly and without a word beckoned them to follow. Minutes later they were descending a curve of rough-cut stone steps to a long, low storeroom lined with barrels and crates and lit by a few oil lamps. A tall man with a ponytail and a long coat got up from a crude trestle table and muttered something in Vashutkin’s ear before shaking his hand and heading for the exit.
‘That was Trask,’ Alexei said in a low voice. ‘Van Krieger’s deputy and a brute. Looks as if he’s being helpful. Wonder how much he is getting paid.’
The former minister went and sat at the table and the greyhaired huntress moved to stand behind him, watching the rest with hard eyes. A slender hooded man stepped out from behind a stack of crates and sat on a chair further back, face hidden in shadow. Greg frowned and was about to ask Alexei about the newcomer when Vashutkin spoke.
‘Mr Cameron,’ he said, getting to his feet, hand outstretched. ‘It is an honour to finally meet you, although I wish it were under less cramped conditions.’
‘An honour for me too, Mr Vashutkin,’ Greg said, shaking the man’s hand and sitting down opposite him. ‘I’m a great admirer of your radio speeches. They’re quite, eh, energetic.’
Vashutkin chuckled. ‘I only gave a handful over the air before Trond Council asked me to stop as it was offending someone’s wife. I am glad that you enjoyed them.’
‘It’s not just me – I have it on good authority that in the towns, certain disrespectful youths gather in secret and recite from transcripts of your speeches, as well as the usual drinking and smoking. I’m told that the bits where you’re comparing President Kirkland to various species of mudworm are especially popular.’
After the deaths of President Sandstrom and his ministers, the Darien Assembly chose Kirkland, leader of the consolidation party, to be president of a government of national unity. Since taking office, however, Kirkland had proved increasingly compliant towards the Brolturans’ security plans.
‘Good, good! That proves how despised the snake is, and I’m sure that he knows.’ He shook his head. ‘Kirkland wasn’t so bad before all this, but he has not the kind of soul that would resist corruption, so he has been eaten by it.’ He paused to glance over his shoulder. ‘Are we secure?’
The woman leaned forward a little and spoke in a Norj accent.
‘He says that there is a single pickup in the ceiling but it is now cancelled.’
The Rus politician seemed to relax a little, then glanced at Greg and smiled at his unconcealed curiosity.
‘My companions are a little . . . uncustomary, da? A mystery for later – now, let us sit and speak of resistance.’
Greg loosened his heavy outer garment, feeling warm suddenly.
‘Well, we have been focusing our attention on information gathering,’ he said. ‘Also keeping the escape routes and safe houses secure, and trying to keep essential knowledge restricted to cells. So far we’ve been getting folk away from most of the inland towns and some of Hammergard’s outlying districts but we hope to expand that, maybe even tackle one o’ their detention centres.’
‘I understand why you wish to do this, my friend, truly I do. But the hard truth is that you will have to cut back on these activities, not increase them.’
Dismayed, Greg sat back. ‘Why’s that?’
‘For two reasons. First, if they escape into the mountains and the forests, the number of dissidents making life difficult for the occupiers goes down. Second, some of these escapers are bringing families and relatives which again pleases the Brolturans because caring for such non-combatants drains your resources, dulls your military edge and reduces your flexibility.’
‘We can’t refuse to help people who’ve suffered at the hands of the Brolturans,’ Greg said levelly. ‘If somebody’s been singled out for harsh treatment, then I’ll do all I can to get them to safety. That’s not gonnae change.’
‘Of course you would, Mr Cameron, and I would too, except that I am recognising the realities of the conflict, the brutal realities, while your methods just make the occupation easier for those stinking offworlders. Change will have to come if we are to work together.’
Greg stared at him, dismay turning to irritation and dislike. He could almost hear a possible response at the back of his thoughts: Aye, Mr Vashutkin, now that you mention it I can see those realities so how about this – instead of helping folk escape, we’ll give ’em guns and explosives, ye know, kids and grannies too, along with a list of targets we want dealt with. And for those far gone in despair there’s always the suicide bomb option, just the thing tae unnerve the occupying forces. What d’ye say?
But at the back of his thoughts was where the sarcasm remained. The situation was too grave for anything but a framework of courtesy, even a flimsy one. He took a deep breath and leaned forward, hands clasped on the table.
‘Could you tell me what you mean by “working together”?’
Vashutkin spread his hands. ‘Unfortunately, I have worn out my welcome in Trond – the council has been coming under a great deal of pressure from the townspeople, the dependent planters and stock farmers because of the embargo imposed by Kirkland’s puppet government. In the next few days the council will cave in to Hammergard then tell me and my supporters to get the hell out of their town, but I want to be gone before then. Luckily, you already have a base of operations, this Tayowal, so we can join forces, pool our skills and do some real planning, eh?’
Vashutkin’s grin was wide and enthusiastic and Greg felt like laughing in his face, but gave an answering smile.
‘Mr Vashutkin . . .’
‘Please, call me Alexander.’
‘Alexander, you have to realise that Tayowal is not a Human settlement but a place that the Uvovo use for ceremonies. They offered it to us as a place of shelter, and we’ve been helping Uvovo evade the Brolturan sweeps, sending them to hideouts in the south and bringing them to Tayowal. I’m not really in charge of the Human community, as such, and I wouldn’t presume to start giving out orders . . .’ Even though I’m the one who organises food for the cooks, the sentry rotas, dispute arbitration, oh aye, I hardly do anything! ‘If my uncle, Theo Karlsson, were here he is someone who would certainly be in charge, but his Diehards seem to have elected me as his stand-in, either that or a mascot, I’ve no’ quite figured it out yet.’
Off to the side, Nikolai Firmanov was smiling as he leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets, saying nothing.
‘You seem to see this as a problem, yet if I were to offer clear leadership perhaps this would not be seen as a problem in these times, perhaps?’ Vashutkin frowned. ‘Informal arrangements work against planning, but we can deal with that at a big-table consultation once we are all together.’
‘I am sorry, Alexander, but without an invite from the Uvovo Listeners, you should not come to Tayowal. I will ask them if you and your men can join us but it’s unlikely they’ll agree. And if you came anyway and set up camp, they’ll just up sticks and vanish into the forest, leaving us in serious barodritt, since we depend on them for eighty per cent of our provisions, as well as the help they give us in a dozen other ways.’ Greg decided to omit the fact that the Listeners saw him as an honorary scholar and the Human spokesman.
Vashutkin gave him a considering look. ‘You have come to rely on them a lot, I see.’
‘It is their world,’ Greg said. ‘Which they’ve decided to share with us.’
‘I understand. My apologies if I seemed . . . impatient.’
‘Not to worry, Alexander. Look, the ancient Uvovo built quite a few habitats all across this region, dug down into the ground or tunnelled into the sides of hills and mountains. There’s one worked into the caves of the Utgard Barricades north of the forest, and not far from Belskirnir, and it’s pretty extensive too. I’m sure that the Listeners would have no problem with you taking it over.’
Vashutkin seemed mollified. ‘My thanks, Gregory, for your advice and your candour – I shall seek more information about these caves. However, I must still urge you to rethink your arrangements. The situation is going to change for the worse and we have to be ready.’
‘Ready for what?’ Greg said. ‘Are the Brolturans bringing in more troops? Or are the Hegemony?’
‘In a manner of speaking, Mr Cameron,’ said another voice.
Greg looked up. It was the hooded man who had spoken. Vashutkin laughed and without turning made a beckoning gesture.
‘Gregory, may I introduce you to my very good friend Baltazar Silveira, who has come all the long way from Earth to speak with us today.’
Half amazed, half puzzled, Greg rose and reached out to shake the man’s hand. Silveira had a slender build and a narrow face, cropped black hair and dark, slightly sad eyes. His smile was faint but his grip was firm. Greg wondered if he was from the Earthsphere ship, Heracles.
‘Mr Cameron, I am very pleased to meet you and your companions,’ he said, his Noranglic carrying an accent that Greg could not place. ‘First, you must understand that my presence on your world has to be kept secret for the simple reason that I am a covert agent for Earthsphere Intelligence. If the Brolturan military or the Hegemony were to learn of me, it would be extremely embarrassing for my superiors, who would force me to leave Darien. And if other powers such as the Imisil Mergence got wind of it, the resulting complications would not be at all helpful.’
‘You have our word, Mr Silveira,’ Greg said, his calm concealing a growing excitement. ‘Outside the four of us, there’ll be no discussion of yourself or your purpose.’ He looked at the Firmanovs and Kao Chih, still wearing cap and muffler, and got nods of agreement. ‘So, the Brolturans are getting reinforcements, you say. Well, after a month of complaints and arguments from Russians, Scandinavians and Scots, it’s no’ surprising, really. What will it be – a regiment of veteran entertainers? A battalion of crack cooks sent in to whip up enough Brolturan delicacies to sweeten our rough natures? Or is it just more troops?’
Vashutkin’s amusement was plain, if stifled. Silveira’s smile was wintry.
‘Brolturan civilisation may be an offshoot from the Sendrukan Hegemony,’ he said, ‘but militarily it should be considered as an adjunct to Hegemony power. This gives them access to a stunning array of cutting-edge battlefield hardware, yet there are a few weapon systems which their patrons keep to themselves, like the Namul-Ashaph. Translated from Sendrukala it literally means “mind that makes”; we would describe it as an AI-autofac, a mobile, nanosourced production unit capable of turning out between four and eight combat mechs a day, depending on their
configuration. Our intel shorthand for it is tektor . . .’
‘Short name, big trouble,’ Vashutkin said to Greg. ‘This is why we have to be ready.’
‘Indeed, yes,’ said Silveira. ‘Part of my assignment is to advise you on what to expect and how to counter Hegemony mech tactics with fortifications and traps.’
As he listened, Greg’s trepidation and dismay deepened. Most of Tayowal consisted of sheltering chambers cut into the sloping sides of a cuplike depression in the Kentigerns’ north foothills; in the event of an attack it would be difficult to defend and would provide poor cover from bombardment. He then recalled that his Uvovo friend Chel the Seer was off in the mountains with the Voth pilot, Yash, and Gorol9, the Construct droid, investigating various old Uvovo ruins with an eye for their defensibility. Hementioned this to Silveira, who nodded.
‘Natural features make the best strongholds,’ he said. ‘With the disadvantage that tunnel complexes can count against you.’
‘So when can we expect the arrival of this factory of death?’
‘It is due to arrive on board a Hegemony freighter sometime in the next couple of days,’ Silveira said. ‘Beyond that I cannot be more specific.’
Greg smiled sharply. ‘Y’know, you must forgive me if I seem a wee bit sour and disgruntled, but in the face of this artificial intelligence dedicated to our destruction would it not have made sense for your superiors to send along, as well as your good self, a crate or two of top-notch weaponry, just to even the scales a little?’
‘Most particle weapons give off distinctive energy signatures,’ Silveira said. ‘If the Brolturans detected such a thing on Darien they would immediately realise that Earthsphere was supporting indigenous insurgents against them, and when the Hegemony learned of it there would be various kinds of hell to pay. Non- Earthsphere armour-piercing guns are being sourced but by the time they arrived the conflict would be well under way.’
‘So we have to make do with a few hunting rifles and small arms, is what you’re saying.’
‘Your situation could actually be worse,’ Silveira said. ‘The tektor you’ll be facing is a class-B unit; the class-A is twice as big and can produce at least twelve mechs a day. There is a world once called Karagal, away at the edge of the Hegemony’s rimward tracts. After a century of protests over the burdens of colonial rule its people rebelled in unison, thinking this would prove their fitness for autonomy. The Hegemony’s response was to send in forty
class-A tektors and in a month no one was left alive, a population of a billion and a half wiped out. Because class-As can build class- Bs in addition to a range of mechs.’
Greg exchanged a look with Vashutkin, who raised a sardonic eyebrow.
‘Somehow,’ Greg said, ‘that’s no’ very assuring.’
‘But you are not in that kind of danger here on Darien,’ the agent went on. ‘The Brolturans are going to considerable lengths to portray themselves as benevolent overseers, taking care of security matters while the Human colonists get on with their lives, grateful for that protection. Such propaganda has been pouring out to the subspace newsfeeds almost from the day after Sundstrom’s assassination, and finding out the truth of the occupation is the other part of my assignment.’
‘Information gathering,’ Greg said, thinking of Kao Chih.
‘That is so. There are several unanswered questions which I was tasked with addressing – Mr Vashutkin was kind enough to furnish me with some background on Captain Barbour, the pilot who shot down two Brolturan interceptors with an Earthsphere shuttle.’
‘You know about that?’ Greg said.
Silveira nodded. ‘Indeed – Barbour is something of an underground hero on Earth, and an openly celebrated one on the Vox Humana colonies. Did you know him?’
‘No, but my uncle was with him aboard that shuttle.’
Vashutkin leaned forward, suddenly animated. ‘Black Theo, yes? Major Karlsson, Viktor Ingram’s right-hand man!’ He uttered a low whistle. ‘Was he killed too?’
‘Not entirely sure,’ Greg said, trying to ignore the hollowness in his chest. ‘There was a report from Pilipoint Station that a lifepod ejected from the shuttle before it engaged the interceptors. Maybe he was in it, I don’t know.’
‘What about the moon Nivyesta?’ Silveira said. ‘What do you think is happening up there?’
Up there. Over the last few weeks Greg had largely succeeded in avoiding any brooding over the fate of those closest to him. Catriona and Uncle Theo were missing, that’s all, and no presumptions of mortality were going to take root in his thoughts.
‘The Brolturans cut all communication with Nivyesta, so we’ve no’ had any direct contact with the folk there,’ he said.
‘There’s plenty of rumours, though – Alexander has probably told you a few – but without another source that’s all they are.’
Silveira nodded. ‘And what about Earthsphere Ambassador Robert Horst? Our politivores have been riding endless waves of speculation since he supposedly vanished on the very day that the Hegemony envoy accused him of being behind the assassination of Reskothyr the first Brolturan ambassador. Mr Vashutkin says he wouldn’t be surprised if he had been responsible – what do you say?’
Greg ran his fingers through his hair and rubbed at an ache in his neck. More like what should I not say? Och well, half a truth is better than nae truth at all!
‘Horst had nothing to do with that assassination,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen a cam-vid that proves that it was Ezgara commandos who were responsible, and they take their orders from the Hegemony envoy, Utavess Kuros. As for Horst’s whereabouts, that is a mystery.’ He sighed. ‘What I’m about to tell you is gonnae sound far-fetched but hear me out. My uncle, Theo Karlsson, knew that airborne Brolturan guards were coming to get Ambassador Horst, who was visiting Gangradur Falls at the time. He got the ambassador away by zeplin to Giant’s Shoulder where I was working . . .’
He went on to relate how they had taken refuge in a hidden chamber within the promontory while Brolturan troops swept the area. He made no mention of the warpwell or its true function. Instead he told them that their presence had triggered an ancient, automated matter transporter which by chance snatched the ambassador away to . . . well, to somewhere else.
Silveira was frowning, while Vashutkin had chuckled at first and was now leaning back, watching him closely.
‘I do not recall any reports of such discoveries on Giant’s Shoulder,’ Vashutkin said.
‘It only came to light in the days before the crisis,’ Greg said. ‘I realise that you only have my word for this . . . well, mine and that of my companions here.’ He indicated the Firmanov brothers.
Vashutkin sat straighter and stared over at Nikolai. ‘Is this true? Is that what you saw?’
Nikolai was unruffled. ‘Yes, sir. It happened just as Mr Cameron described.’
‘Exactly as he said,’ added Alexei.
Greg smiled. ‘In fact, that ancient device is probably the reason for the Hegemony’s interest in Darien – why d’ye think they dug a big access tunnel into the core of Giant’s Shoulder?’
Now Silveira looked uncertain, half-convinced. ‘As a technology, matter transportation has never worked consistently but you say that this device accomplished it.’
‘There’s no knowing that Ambassador Horst survived the process,’ Greg added.
Silveira frowned, directing his gaze over Greg’s shoulder. ‘What about your other companion, the one who has said nothing?’
Greg smiled – this was the opening he’d been waiting for.
‘He has plenty to say, Mr Silveira, but first would ye clarify something for me? Might it be possible that your superiors would offer us direct support, depending on what your report contains?’
‘That is a possibility,’ Silveira said guardedly.
‘If you discovered something of shattering importance, for instance?’
‘It would certainly have to have significant impact.’
Greg half-turned and beckoned Kao Chih forward. ‘Reveal yourself, my friend, and tell these gentlemen who you are.’
Greg saw the surprise in the others’ faces as Kao Chih discarded his cap and muffler and bowed politely to Vashutkin and Silveira in turn.
‘Greetings, gentlemen. My name is Kao Chih, son of Kao Hsien. I have travelled to this beautiful world from a star system near the furthest borders of the Hegemony, although my family previously lived on a world called Pyre. My great-great-greatgrandfather was born there but his parents came from China, from Earth, aboard a ship called the Tenebrosa . . .’
As Kao Chih began to relate Pyre’s tragic story Vashutkin was visibly moved while Silveira looked thunderstruck.
If we can just get him on our side, Greg thought. Maybe the Pyre revelation will be enough, if it feeds into his motivations. We could fight against the Brolturans and this mechanoid factory, but without outside help we’ll lose. And if we lose, Dariens will end up as serfs for our Sendrukan masters, just another subservient cog in the mighty Hegemonic machine. We can’t let that happen.
And he recalled his temporary but horrific enslavement by the Hegemony nanodust, and shuddered.
I won’t let that happen again.